DeVos Abandons a Lifetime of Local Advocacy to Demand Schools Reopen

Ms. DeVos’s threat to withhold federal funding from school districts that do not reopen to in-person instruction angers even those who share her beliefs that public schools have failed the most vulnerable students.

Sarah Carpenter, the executive director of Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group that is critical of the city’s public schools, said her community was struggling with death, joblessness, the lack of high-speed internet in homes and children with no electronic devices. She echoed concerns captured in surveys, like ones compiled in Washington, D.C., which showed that communities hit hardest by the virus were most unsure about sending their children into a classroom.

“You want us to take a chance and send our kids to a building that wasn’t even sanitary before they left. It’s not safe,” Ms. Carpenter said.

Education leaders and medical experts have identified reopening schools as a national priority, particularly for children of color whose communities have borne the brunt of the crisis. Students need to recover from the academic and emotional toll the pandemic has taken, and to regain access to assistance programs like school meals and social services.

Before last week, Ms. DeVos seemed to think there were many ways schools could meet this challenge. In recent months, she had been criticized for using the coronavirus to push policy changes that would create more options for families during the pandemic, including vouchers for private schools, tutoring and virtual schools.

In early April, she announced new distance-learning rules for higher education, saying that the national emergency “underscores the need for reform and for all educational institutions to have a robust capacity to teach remotely.” Later that month, she announced a microgrant competition, in which states could compete for $180 million grants to set up statewide virtual learning, course-access programs and “new, field-initiated models for providing remote education not yet imagined.”

“If our ability to educate is limited to what takes place in any given physical building, we are never going to meet the unique needs of every student,” Ms. DeVos said in April, when she announced the grants.

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